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Chinese Empresses Paintings Collection Premieres at JMAC, Worcester MA


I am writing this blog post about Xiang Li’s Chinese Empresses collection paintings and the art show’s opening reception at JMAC (Jean McDonough Arts Center) in downtown Worcester on Friday, May 31. The collection consists of 70 large Chinese empress paintings and is being shown to the public for the first time at JMAC.

For those who don’t know about JMAC, it is a lively community arts center with a Brick Box theatre and a pop-up gallery space in the heart of Worcester. With an art rail system for hanging large-scale artwork on 14ft high walls and flexible track lighting for illuminating artwork, the popup gallery space provided the perfect venue for a red-carpet welcome for Xiang Li’s empress paintings on large silk panels (each about 6ft tall and 5 ft- 12 ft long). Xiang Li has been painting these empresses for the last ten years. These are painted in traditional Chinese watercolors and each took about 3-6 months to paint resulting in this marvelous art collection.

Xiang Li Exhibition of Chinese Empresses

About the Chinese Empresses Collection

The collection contains empresses from Chinese imperial dynasties from approximately 200 BCE to 1908 CE. Some of these paintings focus on solo empresses whereas other paintings are large panels containing multiple empresses from the same dynasty. As you view these paintings, each one tells a story, the story of a Chinese imperial clan from the vantage point of its empresses. Each painting consists of many small stories of individual empresses weaved together within the context of the larger story of the imperial dynasty. This woman-centric nature of the artwork makes it one-of-a-kind because not much has been written or talked about regarding these Chinese empresses and their impact on their kingdoms in the historical texts.

Below is an example that illustrates my point.

The big painting above (on the left) on a large silk panel tells a story of 20 empresses from the Northern and Southern dynasties. The empresses are placed in chronological order in circular frames with each empress telling her personal story. If you study this painting in detail, you can see the empress’s physical and emotional characteristics, her predispositions and also her favorite pets!

Below are some of the other large-panel paintings from the show. Each painting looked like a motion-picture story of a dynasty.

I learned about another interesting fact regarding Chinese culture and history that day.

At the gallery entrance – ‘Chinese Empresses’ is written in ‘oracle script’ in black and gold ink on a beautiful green silk panel by Xiang Li.

Did you know this about ‘oracle script’?

Oracle bone script is the oldest attested form of written Chinese, dating back to the late 2nd millennium BC, in other words, the great grandfather of Chinese calligraphy as we know it today. Inscriptions were made by carving characters into oracle bones, usually either the shoulder bones of oxen or the plaster of turtles.

Read more about the script on Wikipedia here. Also, below are some fascinating reads about the evolution of the Oracle script to modern-day Chinese Calligraphy.

Faces of the Reception

Meeting with Fabian Barracks, Worcester City’s Cultural Development Officer. Fabian’s energy was infectious. His interest in Li’s work touched us deeply and gave us even more confidence to grow a community of her work in Worcester and Central Mass.

Xiang Li and Lauren Szumita, Director of Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery at College of the Holy Cross.

Xiang Li and Nathan Chiem (middle, Southeast Asian Coalition), John Vo (right, artist). We are so excited to meet them in person. Please check out their organizations and incredible work as artists.

Xiang Li and Jing Gao, a dear friend of Li’s for many decades. Li and Gao both worked at the Forbidden City of Beijing, China. Gao was a conservator there between 1973 and 1985 before moving to the US to work full-time at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA where Gao worked as a lead conservator for nearly 40 years.

In Conclusion

As producers of the show, Fei (Li’s daughter) and I discussed the possibility of adding music to the reception experience. Luckily, Li’s younger sister Ping Li is an exceptionally talented dulcimer and guzheng player, who was a first-seated musician for China’s Central Orchester. Ping accepted our invitation and added just the perfect soundtrack.

I learned that evening that the ‘Guzheng’ is one of China’s oldest string instruments dating back to 2500 years!

Not only did this opening reception at JMAC provide me with the opportunity to be amongst the first set of viewers of Xiang Li’s Empress paintings collection, but it also provided me with a beautiful opportunity for Chinese cultural immersion.

For those who follow Xiang Li as an artist or those who want to see a groundbreaking series of artworks in terms of theme, scale, and style by a solo female artist, do not miss this chance to view this spectacular show while it is on at JMAC, Worcester MA until June 9.

Ping Li on the ‘Guzheng’.

Please keep in touch!

We want to take this opportunity to thank all of you who came to join us at the reception and throughout the show running between May 22 – June 9, 2024, at JMAC. Please continue the conversation and reflection here on this blog post by submitting comments and questions. We look forward to hearing from you!

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